Top insurer innovates to perform while transforming
TONY FORWARD, the CIO for insurance giant QBE’s Australia and New Zealand division, started his journey into IT back in the 80s when he was working for a publisher – an industry just in the throes of being disrupted by technology. Now he is in another industry which is having to adapt to a rapidly changing world, but this time working for QBE, where he now leads an IT team of more than 250 employees.
We asked him some questions about the industry’s future.
Q: Where’s the QBE business today and where is it going moving forward?
A: QBE is the largest listed Australian insurer and we have significant targets on growing our business in Australia, New Zealand and around the world. Our IT digital investment is a key part of that growth.
Q: What are some of the trends impacting the QBE business?
A: There are mid-term trends and there are longer term trends we take into account. The mid-term changes are around doing things in a more challenging landscape and doing them more quickly than we have in the past. But I think longer term, there’s significant disruption destined for insurance. You’re going to have the impact of things like autonomous vehicles. This means that there’ll be fewer car accidents but manufacturers will have to carry the liability if their computers aren’t programmed properly and cars are unsafe. We think that in ten to 15 years car insurance, which has been one of the largest areas of insurance, an $8 billion market in Australia, will become insurance of the manufacturer not of the individual driving a car. So that’s a very different business model.
Q: Technology is a key part in delivering gains to your business goals. Can you please elaborate?
A: Technology helps both in the way that people want to buy insurance or be serviced by an insurance company and in the way that we work within our organisation. We’re increasingly reliant on technology platforms to do things, for example we now use Skype for Business with video conferencing. We couldn’t do some of the things we’re doing globally now without those technology solutions.
Q: In your role as Chief Information Officer for Australia, how do you and the company approach innovation?
A: We think that we just have to unleash innovation. We’ve been using crowd sourcing tools internally to run innovation forums. We’re making big investments in core systems and we’re also doing innovation around insurance – doing things differently to the way other people do them, servicing claims in a way that other people don’t. The future that we’re building for QBE is about scalable platforms that can deal with the disruption going on and even help us disrupt a few things ourselves.
Q: How is cloud computing enabling that?
A: Cloud computing is important in a number of ways. Take just one example, such as our big program running to refactor our core systems. One of the things that you need to do during a program like that is test many hundreds of thousands of test cases and you have to do it in a regression, plus you have to go back and retest. You need a lot of computing power to do that. It’s not cost effective to do it in-house any more so you need a cloud computing solution for that. We’re moving that system entirely to Microsoft Azure. The production will be back in our own data centre, but the development will be done entirely on Azure which gives us more scalable capability. We also are scaling up our analytics program and Azure is a key part of that, particularly for Power BI and storage of data we’re using for analytics.
Q: How important was trust and compliance requirements when choosing a cloud vendor?
A: It was all about trust and compliance. We’re a heavily-regulated industry, so we have to meet compliance obligations and it was an important part of our choice of a cloud vendor. We can do testing and development in the cloud but then, when we’re using real customer data, deploy all that software out of the cloud back into our own data centre. That’s a compliance matter – this way we can keep those records secure and compliant. Presence in Australia was very important to us, Azure data centres located in-country in Australia gives us proximity to things.
Q: How to do you approach your enterprise mobility strategy? Do you take an agnostic approach to the devices you use across QBE?
A: Enterprise mobility is very important to us. We are using Microsoft Azure Active Directory, that’s a key part of the single sign-on strategy we’ve got across cloud vendors, for example. And we are investigating the use of Intune.
At QBE we haven’t gone to a full bring your own model, but we will provide for tablets and for smartphones. The in-house standard is iPhones, but we’re happy to provide sufficient support for people to use an android or a Windows phone or tablet as well. We are starting to use Windows all-in-one devices, Surface for example, for our people as well, particularly because they find it inconvenient to have both a laptop and iPad, for example.
Q: Are you consuming any other cloud services from Microsoft, or is it just Azure at the moment?
A: One of the important programs we’ve had running in QBE is a program we call ONE QBE Collaboration, and that’s entirely built on the Office 365 cloud-hosted stack. So that’s entirely running out of Microsoft Azure data centres, and that’s a global platform for us. We’ve been subscribing to Office 365 for more than a year. We’ve rolled it out entirely in Australia and New Zealand and we’re in the process of rolling it out entirely in our other divisions around the world. The total global deployment will be about 15,000 seats. In Australia, it’s about 4,000 people.
Q: What do your future plans look like, either from using Azure or other broader IT projects?
A: Our future plans are: build up our platform and then leverage greater agility into digital and social, creating infrastructure for a very flexible business that can sell through multiple channels, from wherever the customer wants to buy insurance and be serviced on a claim.